“Madam President, You make Me Feel Proud to be A Liberian Again”


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 22, 2006


President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
The room was packed to capacity and the audience lined the walls of the conference room. Lines formed into the alleys as people were given a chance to pose question. As she did in many instances, the President of Liberia, who has now risen to the stature of a rock star in tame Washington, DC, had gone through the litany of problems plaguing her country. Unemployment, disease, lack of basic services and everything that turns life into a nightmare, lack of electricity, a history of violence and deception, it was all there, in one package and she had come to say that she could solve it all. Because she had the right team and the people of Liberia have never given up. “We who lived in the Diaspora owe those who stayed at home a big debt, because, they bore the brunt of the suffering, they kept the country together.” At some point in her speech, her voice almost broke when talking about the hundreds of thousands of children who want to go to school but can’t, because there are no classrooms, not textbooks, not enough teachers and so on…

The event took place at the Center for Global Development (CGD), a stone throw from the White House where President Sirleaf would meet with President Bush today. She repeated her message. Liberia is down but it can rise up and prosper, better than ever. Liberia is endowed, it has the natural resources, the human resources and all that is needed was a small push.

On the stage with her, she had two of the brightest minds Liberia and may be the world has to offer, her Minister of Finance, Dr. Antoinette Sayeh, a veteran economist from the World Bank, whom the President of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz referred to as one of the best assets of the international financial institution just a few hours earlier.

It had been another long day of meetings for the president. Washington DC likes stars. It likes the glitz and lunches and the photo ops. President Sirleaf came to talk about issues, money and her children and grand children, hungry, naked and unschooled. She knows Washington and has been here before. She was not shy asking the Washington Post editors what she would get out of spending an hour with them, nor was she shy in asking the chief financer of the World Bank to make sure that the $25 million promised by Paul Wolfowitz make its way to Monrovia as soon as possible.

At the Center for Global Development, she asked that donors “shorten the time between the commitment and the cash.” She knows what she wants and she will get it.
Also on the podium with the President was Mr. Richard Tolbert, the Chairman of the National Investment Commission, who, every time he spoke, provoked a round of applause from the crowd. His optimistic vision of Liberia was contagious. Where others saw problems, he saw opportunities. He saw Liberia as a great place to do business. He talked about all the incentives he was working on to attract investors, and he translated Liberia’s problems into investment opportunities. Said he, “I have never encountered any antagonism from the people on the ground, to the contrary, they were good, hospitable and welcoming.” If there was ever a salesman for Liberia, this man had to be it. He could see no problem anywhere and he had the right positive word for every problem others thought of.

Then came in the questions. Former friends and colleagues of the Liberian president and Liberians walked to the microphone and asked questions while the audience stayed fixated on her every word. She bravely, at time with a hint of humor, fielded questions and comments, calmly as the person who knows what she was talking about. She said in one of her meetings that she has been preparing for this job for a long time, and one can by the easiness with which every tricky question finds an easy answer from her. At times, the president asked Ms. Sayeh or Mr. Tolbert to provide an answer.

And came a young man, in his twenties, with dreadlocks, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie. “Madam President,” he said, “when the elections came down to the two of you in the second round, my friends and I from our political group said that you were the lesser of two evils. But I must say, Madam President, that looking at the list of people you have appointed in your cabinet, you are indeed, the best President Liberia could have had now,” he had not yet asked a question. The room broke into applause and the president said, laughing, “I am happy I was upgraded from the lesser of two evils to the best of all.”

And the young man went: “The reason I came to the microphone, Madam President, is to express to you that for the first time in my life, I feel proud of being a Liberian. I can now walk anywhere and say I am a Liberian and be proud of who I am, where I come from.” Then he went on to ask his question. But the words after that sentence were half-drowned in the applause.

That sentence, from that young man in the dreadlocks in the back of the room had made the day for the President. It is the kind of validation that any politician would die for.

President Sirleaf had a good day, on this first day spring 2006. At the World Bank, she was told that she would receive all the support she needed, including debt rescheduling, partnership with the Bank for a conference and the opening of the office of a country representative in Liberia, closed since 1989. And she walked away with $25 million for infrastructure development.

At the luncheon with Liberia watch held at the headquarters of the AED (Association for Educational Development) she receives more accolades and promises of engagement from the group that raised some $200 million for Liberia two years ago and helped her get the Joint Session at Congress.

But the top of all, this day, was to hear from a young Liberian in exile that she made him proud to be a Liberian, for the first time in his life. Because, since he has come to age, he has never seen or heard anything so positive coming out of the country of his parents.

Whatever President Sirleaf gets out of this trip will pale compared to the sense of pride and hopefulness she has instilled in hundreds of thousands of Liberians who have been languishing in exile, waiting for a chance to go home, and as, Mr. Tolbert put it, 80 percent of Liberians in exile will jump at the chance of going home. All that is needed is the right atmosphere. President Sirleaf said she is working with international institutions to create a soft-landing for professionals who want to return home. It means people could find jobs at home and be on a support system as international consultant for a few months as they re-adjust to life.

Indeed, March 20, 2006 was a good day for President Sirleaf in Washington, DC, on the eve of her meeting with President George W. Bush.